Reprinted from yesterday's late editions.
This was a dinner nobody felt he could miss.
Not Sens. Humphrey, Kennedy, Long, Jackson, Bayh, Randolph, Ribicoff, Stevenson and Eagleton, to mention just some.
Not Vice President Mondale.
Not President Carter.
They all came Thursday night to Robert Strauss' dinner for the new Senate majority leader Robert Byrd, at the Madison Hotel, with Carter rushing in to a standing ovration for a 10-minute stay just after the guests had cleared their plates of the wild goose.
The drop-in by the fast-stepping Carter, who said he had been working late at the White House, added that certain something to the evening that not even Byrd's fiddle playing could do after the dessert.
Carter's appearance so flustered the host and former Democratic National Committee chairman Strauss he didn't quite know what to say. "I don't know who to call first," he said, looking over all the dignitaries. He picked Mondale, who immediately deferred to his leader.
Carter, who said of Strauss. "In Bob's typical fashion, when he didn't know what to do, he talked," quickly got to the point: kind words for the guest of honor.
"There were 31 primaries," said Carter."I entered 30 of them. There was one state I stayed out of. I'm not going to mention any names . . ." But he did. "I didn't go into West Virginia to campaign.
"I didn't enter West Virginia because of my respect for Bob Byrd.
"I've got a lot of instructors in here. I'm glad you've chosen as my chief instructor, Bob Byrd."
The President, accompanied by his congressional relations assistant, Frank Moore, told the 32 Democratic senators, most of whom were escorting their wives, that the Senate is "the finest family that possibly exists in the world."
He said the legislators "form a sense of purpose and unity of commitment that is really impressive to someone from outside who sees it for the first time." Carter thanked Byrd for helpful suggestions, saying. "Since I've been in office he's been close to me. We've spent several hours together." The President called Pennsylvania Avenue "a two-way street" and said, "I want to meet you halfway."
Byrd seemed to enjoy himself. Noticeable at the center table (there were three rows of three tables) with a red vest and pink lei given him by the wife of Sen. Spark Matsunaga of Hawaii, Byrd puffed on a cigar, waiting his turn to speak.
Strauss appeared to have a good time, too. Carter, it seems, is about to appoint him as foreign trade representative, giving Strauss the opportunity to make a small joke.
Strauss said he had expected to stay longer in the "private sector" and that "I had looked forward to getting rich." Now that he already was on his way back to government "I can't afford this party. There will be separate checks. Mr. President, you'll only be stuck with the cover charge."
"I knew he wasn't going to pay the bill," said Carter, laughing. "That's why I came late and I'm going to leave early." And, after some more handshaking, he did leave early, setting just as quick a pace for his Secret Service entourage as he did entering, as if he still had more work to do on an "important announcement" he promised for Friday.
Now Mondale, knowing it was his turn to address the groups, saw fit to accept Strauss' second invitation to speak. The Vice President called Byrd "one of the great men of our time."
Then came Byrd, who said to Strauss. "You're the best chairman the Democratic Party has had since Jim Farley," to which not a single person failed to applaud.
Byrd then undertook an extensive discourse on the history of the Senate. He said there had been 1,715 members since 1789, then cited such matters as the ridiculously low pay of the early 19th century, which caused chuckles, and the time one senator harshly criticized Vice President Van Buren, which drew laughter and hisses. Byrd, as if everybody there didn't know, showed he knew just about everything there was to know about the Senate.
It was the kind of evening when a Democratic senator could get nostalgic. Well before Byrd did, so did his West Virginia colleague, Jennings Randolph. Before dinner, Randolph mentioned that he was the only member of Congress left from Roosevelt's first 100 days and remembered "on a rainy night like this in late March, 1933" going down to the White House with several other congressmen to discuss legislation with Roosevelt, and Roosevelt, white-knuckled and banging the table with his fist, saying there would be immediate action on unemployment.
Before coffee and brandy, Byrd took off the lei and opened his venerable violin case and warmed up, plucking. "Scoop," he said to Sen. Jackson, "they got this kind of music out your way?"
He played and sang "Goin' Up Cripple Creek." There was hand-clapping and, at the end, a wild cry from Byrd, some kind of noise that sounded as if Davy Crockett was in town.
Byrd told the senators he hoped to "adjorn in early October," which brought the loudest cheering and applause of the evening.
"What'll it be, 'Rye Whiskey' of 'Cumberland Gap? Byrd asked, offering more. "What am I going to do, Russell?' he asked, looking at Sen. Long. "Rye Whiskey' won out.
Byrd fiddled and sang, "If I don't drink rye whiskey I surely will die," and he said, "This is an evening I will never forget."